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Class warfare

When development agencies come bearing aid, the world's poor do not always benefit. John Stackhouse reports on how plans to build a school brought fear and violence to an Indian village.

By John Stackhouse
First published July 31, 1999

Biharipur, India

Our village appeared on the horizon as it did almost seven years ago, a cluster of mud-walled huts packed together like a Bombay slum, except this time there was no smoke from the scores of smouldering winter fires. It was summer, the eve of the monsoon, and the land around Biharipur in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh was blazing hot.

A few fields glistened in the midday sun, their crops covered with water from the landlord's whirring irrigation pump. But most of the landscape, as far as the eye could see, was bone-dry, Dalit land waiting for the monsoon to decide if the coming year would be one of comfort or hunger.

Inside the village, there were only modest improvements to the 100 or so huts. A few brick walls. Some new cement rooftops. A coat of paint (pale pink) on the landlord's house. Nothing that could be mistaken for public action.

There were no sewers or drains in the village, no health facilities, no signs other than a painted wall telling couples to stop at two children. About the only public investment Biharipur could claim was a battered dirt road that led from the village to the railway tracks two kilometres away. Even the road's future was in doubt, threatened by a monsoon that could wash it away and flood the village with disease.

On the surface, little had changed in Biharipur since I first came here in 1993. I had hoped it would become a touchstone, a gauge of progress that would help me understand development as it happens outside the realm of aid projects. I came back about 20 times and now, at the end of the 1990s - the Clinton decade of megamergers, Internet and $10-trillion added to the global economy - there was nothing here.

Beyond the mango trees, beyond the rice paddy where two cranes bathed and pecked for food, beyond the parched field where dozens of children, most of them babies, had been buried over the past years for want of food or proper medicine, beyond all this lay the village that seemed the same as when we found it.

Or so we thought.

What lay ahead, what could not be fathomed by either me or my friend Rama, who had come on the first journey and, like me, was coming to say goodbye, was a community at war with itself, a feud so bitter and deep that it would shake our very faith in development.

A Dalit (the lowest caste group once known as "untouchable") was dead, shot while in the fields. Two more Dalit youths were in jail on charges of attempted murder. Our closest friend, the landlord and school teacher, Rajinder Singh Yadav, who belongs to a slightly higher caste, had been charged with rape. A young Muslim mother was dead, found hanging by her sari in the family hut. Another Dalit family faced charges of making small weapons in their hut.

Biharipur was in the middle of a caste war. In the searing heat of July, our village was in flames. And it was all due to a school.

We walked to Rajinder's house where we always stayed. The tension in the laneways and walled compounds was as palpable as the monsoon air. The house next to Rajinder's was in ruins, its roof, doors and windows missing and its walls knocked to bits as if it had been shelled.

Rajinder looked no better as he welcomed us. Once a big strapping farmer who liked to challenge us at shot put in his mango grove - there was no contest - he looked feebler than I had seen him. He had moved three of his seven children to a new house in a local town, and went nowhere without his shotgun.

He had lost maybe 20 pounds and, it seemed, most of his confidence.

"I don't know what is happening to India," he said, greeting us. "I don't know what is happening to this village."

He invited us to sit on a charpoy, one of the woven cots we always slept on, and offered us cups of sweet milky tea before speaking about the village war and the ugly truth it exposed about "community development," that great promise of the '90s.

"It all started with the school," he said.

Ever since we first arrived in Biharipur, Rajinder and his neighbours had been asking for a school. During elections, they told campaign workers it was all they wanted. The closest primary school was two kilometres away and in a higher-caste village where Biharipur's Dalits were often stoned or beaten up.

Rajinder, who taught in the neighbouring village, asked everyone he knew for help. At his request, I wrote letters to district officials. His brother, a local cadre in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, made more appeals. Rajinder also wrote to a distant relative who had become a cabinet minister, and went to a public reception to genuflect at the minister's feet.

Such is the way aid is won.

After years of effort, Rajinder was rewarded. In 1998, it was announced that a big World Bank-financed project was to expand basic schooling in Uttar Pradesh, which is home to 140 million people. Biharipur was to get a five-room schoolhouse, worth 190,000 rupees ($4,500 U.S.), which was more than the village had seen spent on anything before. The only thing the people had to do was form an education committee - a sort of parent-teacher association - to decide on, among other things, a site.

What followed was the steady disintegration of a community.

Following government guidelines, the committee was to have 23 members, and represent all the colours of India's pluralistic rainbow: among them, a teacher, woman, Dalit, Muslim, youth, elder and handicapped person. The committee never met in full. The people figured that, because Rajinder was the biggest landlord and best-educated person in the village and controlled just about every aspect of public life, such as it was, he would control the committee, too.

Rajinder offered a parcel of land on his side of the village as a site for the school and told other villagers he would not charge for it. Then something astonishing happened. For the first time since anyone could remember, the Dalits said no. They wanted the school on their side of the village, not for their children's convenience but as a place where their guests, especially wedding guests, could sleep. Maybe they could store grain in the school, too, it was suggested.

Arguments erupted in every corner of the village. Some Dalits didn't mind the school being on Rajinder's property as long as they got a school. But a new generation of Dalits, who had been to school and found factory jobs in nearby towns, refused to bend.

As summer turned to winter, Biharipur's school fight grew so hostile the district education team threatened to take away the contract altogether. And then Rameshwar was found dead.

One of the new militant Dalits, Rameshwar was part of the resistance to Biharipur's middle-caste dominance. A few years before, when it was suggested he was carrying on with one man's wife, the man committed suicide by consuming fertilizer. This time, as more rumours swirled, another jealous husband, Radhay Shyam, said he was not going to tolerate such innuendo. After all, Radhay Shyam was a Yadav, and the Yadavs thought they controlled Biharipur.

Early in the evening a few days later, Rameshwar, the Dalit Casanova, was found shot dead in the fields.

The war had begun. Not long after the killing, an even more militant Dalit, a young man named Sri Pal, attacked a middle-caste neighbour's house, accusing the man of building a small temple on Dalit land. Weapons were drawn and shots fired. Finally, the middle-caste man, Bola, fled the village with his family as a Dalit gang ransacked his house and then demolished it.

Rajinder said he would have stopped the fight had he been in the village, but he was away.

Instead, his eldest son, an aggressive high-school dropout, tried to intervene. From his rooftop, he shouted at Sri Pal and then fired a shot in the air with his father's gun.

The two young men were once schoolmates but had gone separate ways. Rajinder's son, Satya Prakash, was wedded to the family land, with no future other than one managing his inheritence. That was his destiny. Sri Pal, with no land to inherit, faced a more uncertain destiny. He had moved to a city, found a factory job and joined the growing Dalit political movement that encouraged its members to resist higher castes at all costs.

Following the quarrel, Sri Pal fled the village, and returned only after Rajinder came home.

He brought with him the county police, who said they would be pressing charges against the landlord for allegedly raping Sri Pal's wife.

There was no evidence. But under India's remarkable Dalit protection law, a female Dalit's accusation is all police need, and Sri Pal's wife had given a statement that she had been harassed. Even a verbal insult, such as calling a Dalit "untouchable," is considered rape.

If Indian law is firm, however, its application is flexible. Rajinder quickly got the charges dropped, a favour that he said cost him 5,000 rupees. He also persuaded the local police, who are mostly middle- and upper-caste men, to arrest Sri Pal and another Dalit for trying to kill him.

That night, Rajinder suggested we sleep by his tractor for protection, and then took his gun to the roof, where he planned to keep watch.

I had never seen Biharipur in such a plight. In every laneway, the village was divided.

Families did not talk to one another, or to their neighbours. Guns were everywhere.

One of the Dalit families, headed by Rajinder's neighbour, the widow with no name, was charged last year with manufacturing small guns from metal pipes in their hut. Several Dalits were taken to the county jail, and returned only after they gave police a wristwatch, 1,500 rupees and a pledge to pay another 3,000 rupees.

"I don't like violence," Rajinder said, slinging his rifle over his shoulder. "I would rather walk away, but people would see that as a sign of weakness. They will push you if you walk away."

The next morning, after a night of rain that drove us into the tractor shed, we visited our other friends in the village, and in each home a little more of my confidence in development evaporated.

Down the laneway and around the corner from Bola's razed house, a liquor shop had opened in the spring and was run by the youngest son of Biharipur's only witch doctor, Lata Ram, who died last year. Lata Ram once chanted mantras to the monkey god Hanuman; now his son sells up to 75 small plastic bags a day of alcohol (clear 36-proof and dark 25-proof) to field workers who for the first time in modern India have some, but not much, disposable income.

On the other side of the village, we called on Biharipur's only Muslim woman, Manna, who was the last person in the village to grow trees in front of her house. The trees are gone.

So are six of Manna's 10 children, all dead to a variety of causes, the most common being diarrhea. Her daughter-in-law Rahisa, a young mother of three, is also dead. She was found hanging from her sari in the family hut a few months ago, when the rest of the family was coincidentally in the fields.

"It just happened like that," Manna said, not looking up from the basket of sweet potatoes she was trying to sell.

Rahisa's parents did not believe the story. Too many young women are murdered every day in north India for not pleasing their in-laws. Sometimes, it is a failure to produce a son.

Sometimes, it is just bad cooking.

After burying Rahisa in a field outside Biharipur, her parents said they would have to notify local police - unless, of course, Manna gave them 40,000 rupees. That was when she cut and sold her 12 tall eucalyptus trees. She borrowed the rest of the money from relatives, and has not seen Rahisa's parents since.

Biharipur was stricken with dirty water, insufficient land and a bad dirt road that was its only connection to the outside world. But, increasingly, it seemed the village was cursed by something else, by some greater unknown; that is, until we went to say goodbye to the Sikhs. They had another point of view.

Kartar Singh, his wife, Jeet Kaur, and three grown sons moved to Biharipur in 1992 when the land in their previous village showed signs of exhaustion. Ever since, I had seen them do nothing but work tirelessly. Whenever we sat down in their yard, set pleasantly at a distance from the crowded village, the family took turns talking to us so the others could continue with the many tasks at hand - milking the buffalo, fixing an irrigation pump, digging out weeds or bathing the newest grandchild, a one-year-old boy.

Over seven years, Biharipur's only Sikh family had worked the fields so hard and saved so much that they had come to control 10 hectares of cropland. They owned a tractor, three diesel irrigation pumps and two handpumps for drinking water and had money to pay tuition fees for their five school-aged grandchildren who walk every day to a private school in a nearby town.

When it comes to the rest of the village, the Sikh men like to blame Hinduism for causing their low-caste field workers to accept fate and do little to change it. The Sikh women prefer to blame hygiene and personal habits - the way young children sit half-naked in the dirt while their fathers spend the family savings on liquor.

The Sikhs no longer associate with the village, and I was beginning to share their anger and despair. So many people we knew, so many children, were dead or on their way to dying, and there seemed to be so little hope for the rest, except to get out. Even that one beacon of progress, a school, was turning the village against itself.

But, in the end, I could not agree with the Sikhs. As hopeless as Biharipur seemed, it was not beyond repair.

On July 5, when north India's schools opened for a new academic year, Rajinder decided to wait no more. As head teacher of the nonexistent Biharipur primary school, he went ahead and held the first classes in his courtyard, on the cement floor where we usually put our charpoys. He had saved a some small slate boards and chalk from a state-sponsored adult-literacy drive, and put 1,000 rupees ($25 U.S.) of his own money into other supplies.

"Women said to me, 'Don't listen to our husbands. Open the school,'" he said.

On the first day of class, 52 of Biharipur's 100 school-aged children showed up. More than half, 30 in all, were girls. Seventeen were Dalits. It seemed the mothers were right.

Of course, Rajinder will do well if a new school is built, what with his teaching salary, payment for his land and perhaps a cut of the local building contract. But the reality is the village would not have a school without his efforts, and it almost surely would fall apart if he left.

In Biharipur's tragedy, there is no root that runs deeper. In development, there is no flaw that is greater.

For half a century, the world has assumed development was about a product - creating things such as schools to meet needs. But for millions of people such as Biharipur's Dalits, it must be seen as a process - a social change in which people come together to fight, argue and eventually find the ways and means to meet their own needs.

Too many people in the village were left out of that process, and none more than the Dalit widow with no name.

On our last day in Biharipur, we found the widow with no name beyond the mosquito-infested pond, in her mud-walled home where the weapons were allegedly made. She has lived there for more than 50 years, ever since she came to Biharipur as a child bride, had five children and watched her husband die.

With half a hectare of land, she watches over 24 great-grandchildren whose lives are not noticeably better than hers. None of the children had signed up for Rajinder's new school.

They claimed they did not know about it. The eldest girl, Pinky, was too busy learning how to make chapattis and prepare for marriage. She is 12.

We talked for nearly an hour, shared sweets and family photos, and then it was time to leave. Rajinder had come to tell us his tractor was ready to drive us to the railway tracks. It was the first time I had seen him on this side of the mosquito pond.

"Lambardar," the old lady greeted him with folded hands - "village lord."

"Lambardar, it is so hot, and all the children are sick," she said.

"It is hot," he replied, looking only at the sky.

For a moment, there was silence, except for a breeze rustling the leaves of the Dalits' only tree. A landlord with a title and a widow with no name had nothing more to say to each other.

"Go, brother," the old woman said. She was looking at me.

Biharipur will eventually get a new school and road, the standard measures of development that are called "output," and the statistics will make the state government, India and World Bank look better. But until the process within Biharipur changes, these things will amount to little.

Only when the people of the village sit down together, when men face women and Yadavs face Dalits, when Rajinder and the widow with no name argue until they agree on a site for their school, when they finally refer to it as their school - only then will their work become lasting.

When the village becomes a community, I realized as Rajinder started his tractor, only then will the people of Biharipur find that elusive process called development.

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